Abuse Effects Coping Methods

Confronting and Navigating Toxic Positivity in Your Healing

Being able to remain positive, especially during tough times, can benefit your healing journey. But even something like positivity can be toxic.

Have you ever told yourself you shouldn’t feel sad, angry, or hurt? Do you find yourself faking a smile when you just want to cry? Have you ever forced yourself to forgive those who hurt you even if you don’t want to?

These are examples of toxic positivity. Simply put, toxic positivity is the belief that people should maintain a positive mindset or outlook at ALL times regardless of their circumstances.

It takes positive thinking to an extreme, minimizing and denying any emotions that aren’t happy or positive. Perhaps it’s something you’re familiar with, whether it was something your parents did to you or something you’re doing to yourself.

Growing up, my parents despised my crying. I was also not allowed to have negative emotions. Any sign of anger or sadness was seen as a character flaw that my mother used against me time and time again.

So as I got older, I got better at hiding my feelings. I can go from sobbing to brightly smiling in two seconds. I also learned to push away my feelings. And because of that, I ended up being terrible at managing my emotions, leading to depression and emotional outbursts.

Toxic positivity was a roadblock I didn’t know was present in my childhood and my healing journey until I truly dug deep into my feelings. It still comes up from time to time, mostly towards myself. But there are times when I do it to other people, too.

This post explores what toxic positivity is and how it might’ve been present in your childhood as well as your current life and healing journey. It also discusses why it’s harmful and how to overcome it.

What is Toxic Positivity and How to Avoid It| Hopeful Panda

Where Did Toxic Positivity Come From?

Positivity is generally not harmful. It’s actually beneficial because it aids in post-traumatic growth. However, positivity becomes toxic when it dismisses your genuine emotions or is enforced as the only or best way to be or feel.

When dealing with a difficult situation, phrases like “good vibes only”, “don’t be so negative”, or “it’s not a big deal” dismiss your pain and experience. It also forces you to repress, suppress, ignore, or deny your feelings and perspectives.

But why do people do it? Why do you do it?

We are social creatures so we behave or present ourselves in a socially acceptable way. And feeling angry, sad, or upset isn’t usually socially acceptable.

Positivity is often used to cover up sadness, grief, and anything uncomfortable. And when you live in a society that says things like “good vibes only”, feeling okay about feeling sad or upset becomes difficult. But that’s just one factor.

Toxic Positivity Towards Self

Growing up, your parents probably often dismissed or ignored your feelings and experiences. Don’t be such a crybaby. Stop looking so sad. You’re weak for letting something like that bother you.

Or they might even one-up your feelings and experiences with their own. Things were harder for me when I was your age. I went through the same thing and you don’t see me crying about it. At least you didn’t go through what I went through.

When you’re so used to being treated this way, you might start doing it to yourself. You might start dismissing and suppressing your emotions. You might start hating yourself for feeling bad. And you might tell yourself that you should be happy because you don’t have it that bad.

Toxic Positivity Towards Others

While you might have repeated your parents’ treatment of you towards yourself, you might have also repeated it with others.

Someone telling you their negative feelings or experiences might be triggering for you. It can bring up your own difficult emotions that you tend to push away. So you might have a hard time facing other people’s difficult emotions because you never got the chance to deal with your own.

So you might end up being toxic towards them like giving general feel-good statements or unintentionally dismissing their feelings and experiences because you feel uncomfortable. You might also try to get them to stop just so you don’t have to face and deal with your own feelings.

Signs of Toxic Positivity

Hiding or masking true feelings: Putting on a fake smile or cheerful demeanor to take attention away from how you truly feel.

Dismissing or suppressing an emotion: Telling yourself to “just get over it” when feeling a certain way because you don’t like how it feels. Or saying “it is what it is” to brush things off rather than address it. This also includes dismissing someone else’s emotions by telling them “don’t be sad” or “don’t cry”.

Signs of Toxic Positivity | Hopeful Panda

Feeling guilty for feeling a certain way: Feeling guilty when you feel sad, angry, disappointed, or anything else considered negative. You may even believe it’s wrong to feel that way.

Using feel-good statements for negative feelings or experiences: Saying things like “Everything happens for a reason” or “Look on the bright side” when you are experiencing something hard or when someone tells you about a difficult situation they’re in.

Giving perspective instead of validation: Trying to give perspective like “It could be worse” or how so-and-so is in a worse situation is invalidating and dismissive. Just because it could be worse doesn’t mean you or someone’s feelings and experiences aren’t valid.

Shaming self or others for feeling negative: This is perhaps the biggest sign of toxic positivity. Everyone is allowed to have feelings (as long as they’re expressed appropriately). No one should be shamed for their feelings, good or bad. If someone’s feelings get to toxic levels, try to remove yourself from the situation.

Saying “just be happy” or “choose happiness”: Happiness is not something that can be automatically turned on. These sayings imply that people who aren’t happy are asking for it or choosing to be. No one (for the most part) chooses to suffer.

Many of these statements and phrases may be well-intentioned. I’m guilty of this as well. Sometimes, we might not know what to say or how to approach a person or situation so we end up resorting to this kind of feedback.

It’s okay because slip-ups happen. But it’s important to be more mindful about using such comments, toward others and yourself.

Why is Toxic Positivity Harmful?

Toxic Positivity | Hopeful Panda

Toxic positivity invalidates feelings, experiences, and suffering. It functions as an avoidance mechanism, allowing you to avoid emotional situations that may make you uncomfortable.

Pretending bad things aren’t there doesn’t make them go away. On the contrary, it makes things worse. Denying yourself or another person the ability to feel uncomfortable feelings causes the person to fall into a state of denial and repression. This can make the person emotionally shallow or unaware.

A study found that avoidance coping was actually linked to higher levels of depression. Other studies also show that hiding or denying feelings leads to more stress on the body and/or increased difficulty avoiding distressing thoughts and feelings.

So the more you avoid your negative thoughts and feelings, the bigger they grow, and the more you reinforce your tendencies to ignore negativity. And while you are trapped in this cycle, these emotions become bigger and more intense as they remain unprocessed.

This is simply unsustainable. It will manifest itself in other ways that you won’t even be aware of. Toxic positivity can make you inauthentic, distance you from others, and even cause you to lose touch with reality.

Telling others or yourself that what you’re feeling is wrong is shaming and guilting, especially in the face of trauma or tragedy. Forcing a positive outlook on pain or suffering encourages the person to be silent about their struggles.

You may think those generic feel-good comments like “don’t worry, be happy” or “it could be worse” are sympathetic or motivating comments. But it’s mostly a way of shutting down anything you or someone else may want to say about what they’re experiencing.

Of course, this is okay if it actually helps you feel better. There are plenty of times when thinking “it could be worse” helped me reframe a situation and feel better about it. But that’s usually after I’ve had time to process my feelings and situation by having a good cry or thinking, “man, this really sucks”.

The important thing here is reframing the situation after giving attention to your emotions. But usually when these generic statements are used, you’re just delaying having to deal with what you’re really feeling, which will always find a way back to you.

Ways to Avoid Toxic Positivity

Ways to Avoid Toxic Positivity | Hopeful Panda

Positive thinking obviously has its psychological benefits. But the problem is – life isn’t always positive. I’m sure you know all too well that life throws challenges, hardships, and obstacles at you all the time. And you have to deal with them.

If you’ve been affected by toxic positivity or notice the behaviors in yourself, here are some things you can do to develop a healthier, more supportive approach.

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity | Hopeful Panda

Be realistic about what you should feel

Life hurts sometimes, and that’s okay. It’s okay to feel. It’s okay to be sad, angry, frustrated, scared, or worried. And it’s okay to pout or cry. Don’t beat yourself up over how you’re feeling. And recognize that feelings aren’t mutually exclusive.

It’s normal to feel more than one thing at the same time, both pleasant and unpleasant ones even. For instance, you might be scared or nervous about possibly failing, but also feel hopeful or confident about succeeding at the same time.

Emotions are complex, just like the situations you’re in. It’s up to you to figure out what and why you’re feeling the way you do. When you’re in a tough situation, take as much time as you need to try to make it better. And most importantly, remember to practice self-care and self-compassion.

Accept your emotions and let yourself feel them

Accept yourself and your feelings. It just means you’re human. Dealing with life’s challenges will bring up difficult and unpleasant emotions, and that’s perfectly normal.

Many people have a lot of trouble staying with uncomfortable emotions. They might do whatever they can to get rid of it or pretend it’s not there. But the healthiest thing to do is to actually let yourself feel all those emotions and work through them.

As cliche as it sounds, it’s okay not to be okay. Your feelings are real, valid, and important. Give yourself permission to feel them.

Find healthy ways to express and manage your emotions

If you have any uncomfortable emotions, it’s up to you to manage them, not push them away or pretend they’re not there. But expressing your emotions doesn’t mean you have to lash out at the world and constantly complain about how awful life is. That’s toxic.

To work through your feelings, try to accept them, let yourself feel them, and find healthy ways to cope. Learn how to deal with your emotions healthily.

Realize that happiness isn’t permanent

Happiness is a fleeting emotion. Trying to achieve constant happiness is not just extremely difficult, but impossible, and well, toxic.

Just because someone isn’t happy doesn’t mean they’re depressed, miserable, or dealing with some awful life situation. No one can be happy all the time. If you think you are, you need to dig deep to see how you truly feel or who you really are.

Listen and be supportive

When someone is telling you about their negative experiences or feelings, simply listen and try to understand where they’re coming from, even if it’s different than how you feel.

Everyone is entitled to their feelings. Don’t shame another person for their emotions. Acknowledge that others may not feel the same way you would in the same situation.

Show your support by saying “I’m here” or “I’m listening”. Or you can ask “Is there anything I can do for you?” or “Is everything okay?” Let them know that what they’re feeling is valid. You can also paraphrase what you’re hearing to validate them.

When appropriate, you can offer small or simple suggestions. But try to provide support over unsolicited advice. Try to refrain from saying generic feel-good quotes or statements.

While it’s okay sometimes to say “You can do this” or “It’ll get better”, also try to listen first to gauge if it’s appropriate to say them. And when you do say something positive, try to include support and validation.

Recognize toxic positivity

The most straightforward way to avoid toxic positivity is, well, to recognize it. Try to notice toxic statements. They’re usually overly simple like “Positive vibes” or “Just go outside”.

Once you notice them, it’ll be easier to dismiss them as toxic and harmful. It’ll also help you learn not to behave the same way.

Toxic Positivity Overview | Hopeful Panda

Conclusion

Many people have engaged in toxic positivity in one way or another. I have and I probably still do from time to time without realizing it. Learning how to recognize and avoid it can benefit you and the people around you.

It allows you to provide and receive more genuine support when you or someone close to you is going through something difficult, which means it’s beneficial for your healing.

Also, I know the whole post focusing on how positivity can be toxic may spread the wrong message that positivity is bad. But… no. Positivity can be very beneficial! But, as always, taking anything to an extreme can be harmful.

Constantly going on about how awesome life is or how there are no bad things about life at all is toxic positivity, and frankly, delusional. Constantly whining about how much life sucks is toxic all the same.

The important thing is objectivity and balance. See both bad and good. Acknowledging the bad tells you that you need to do something to resolve or deal with the issue. It helps you remain realistic. Noticing the good can help you feel better and recognize that there are silver linings.

An all-or-nothing mindset will just hurt your mental health, relationships, and quality of life. Basically, not everything is perfect just like not everything is awful. Life is full of nuances.

In the end, remember that it’s okay to promote positivity. Just try to do it healthily while still acknowledging and validating your and others’ feelings and experiences.

Confronting and Navigating Toxic Positivity | hopefulpanda.com

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Hi there, I’m Estee. Having grown up with an abusive mother, I know how isolating, frustrating, and hopeless everything could feel – back then as a child and even now as an adult.

I am always trying to better understand and manage the effects of the abuse I experienced. And this journey I’m on inspired me to create Hopeful Panda. Learn more here.

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